If you’re going to have a major row it’s probably as well to get it over as early in the conference proceedings as possible. To be fair, Labour could have done without the perfect storm of falling out about everything from changes to the leadership election rules, scumgate and cervixes on Sunday, but by the third day in Brighton things had more or less returned to an even keel. Delegates could get back to doing what they liked best. Agreeing that the Tories were a heartless, hopeless bunch without going to the trouble of wondering why voters kept electing a Conservative government.
Rachel Reeves was a case in point. Having begun her shadow chancellor speech in the now time-honoured fashion of every politician with a bit of personal backstory, Reeves moved on to the current government’s many failings. She was spoiled for choice. Energy prices, queues and panic buying – Boris telling everyone not to panic had exhausted what stocks remained – on garage forecourts, shortages of blood tests, the ending of the £20 universal credit uplift and the hike to national insurance contributions were just a few of the shitshows that came to mind. “If we take on Tory incompetence, we can win,” she said. Only to all intents and purposes, Labour have been looking for different ways to take on Tory incompetence for the past 11 years and have yet to find a way of winning power.
So inevitably Reeves’s speech had the feel of a wishlist. But what she did, she did well in a performance that was less wooden than many of her previous conference appearances. She doesn’t find it easy to show her human side on stage, but now she was in overdrive to work the room. Her voice was less monotonal than usual and her arms were flung wide open at least once every minute.
And it more or less paid off. When John McDonnell was shadow chancellor, his speeches were treated with scepticism, if not alarm, from many financial institutions and large sections of the media. Reeves doesn’t have that problem. She is perceived as a perfectly credible shadow chancellor of the exchequer. Her problem is to get them and enough of the country to take her seriously as the next chancellor. That is proving easier said than done.
Not that Reeves didn’t give it a good go. She talked of “the everyday economy” and said she would introduce an “office for value for money” to make sure that no one could accuse Labour of uncosted policy. She promised to make the tax system fairer, so that those who earned the most paid the most, to get rid of business rates and to close tax loopholes. If Jeff Bezos could fly to the moon, then he could pay his taxes, she said. Actually, Jeff barely left the Earth’s atmosphere but the point was well made nonetheless. She had even dared to mention the words “botched Brexit”. Though even she didn’t care to explain further. Brexit is still a dangerous word in Labour circles.
Reeves ended by announcing a new green deal. For the next eight years, a Labour government would invest £28bn a year into the green economy. At least it would if there was a Labour government in power. As it was, we’d have to wait at least another couple of years – or possibly longer – for that.
There was a time when the shadow chancellor might have got some flak for that level of government borrowing but after the pandemic people have got a lot more sanguine about levels of debt. Besides, the Tories were sure to announce their own green spending plans in the budget ahead of Cop26 so there would be no comeback from the Conservatives about excessive spending on climate change. Reeves won a standing ovation and a hug from Keir Starmer. Angela Rayner, also on the stage, didn’t look quite so pleased at the reception Rachel was getting. But the shadow chancellor had done her bit by laying out costed spending plans. Now for the trickier bit of getting elected so they could be implemented.
Over at the fringe, one person dominated proceedings. Andy Burnham is clearly on manoeuvres and there was scarcely an event at which the Manchester mayor didn’t turn up. His text was consistent. Levelling up began with public transport, and Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings weren’t all bad. His subtext was also consistent. “I know how to deal with the Tories and I’m the next leader of the Labour party.” A bit of an ask, given he isn’t even a Labour MP. But Burnham clearly thinks time is on his side. Not exactly on message with the rest of the conference. Though he could be right.